Driving schools cope with an auto-immune generation

March 18th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Note: this is not a public road

Note: this is not a public road

When the automobile industry slumps, it takes a bunch of other industries down with it. Take driving schools. Twenty years ago it was a great business to be in since it seemed everyone wanted a driver’s license and, owing to Japan’s cramped road conditions and love affair with red tape, there were lots of opportunities to make a lot of money helping those people obtain driver’s licenses. Unlike in the U.S., where many public schools have driver’s education programs (or, at least, used to) and most youngsters learn how to drive right there on public streets and obtain their permits before they graduate from high school, in Japan the restrictions against learners driving on streets force people to take lessons in for-profit driving schools, which charge dearly by the hour and more or less decide when you are ready to take your road test. It’s a time-consuming endeavor, so most people don’t do it until they are in college or thereafter, and traditionally it was normal for an individual to spend ¥200,000 to ¥300,000 on lessons before actually obtaining a license.

In 1960 there were 125 driving schools throughout Japan. Ten years later this number had increased tenfold and pretty much stayed constant until the 90s. The population of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992, and between 1990 and 2008 104 driving schools went out of business. Competition among those who remained has become fiercer and fiercer. About 1.6 million people obtained driver’s licenses in 1999. Only 1.2 million obtained them in 2008, a drop of 30 percent.

Of course, the drop in the birthrate and various economic problems are the primary reasons for the decline, but another one is a marked loss of interest among young people in cars. In a 2008 survey conducted by one automobile promotion association, driving was listed 7th on a list of things that people in their 40s and 50s said they wanted to do. For respondents of university age, driving was 17th on the list. In the same year only 8.3 percent of Japanese between the ages of 18 and 24 had licenses, or half the percentage in the same age group who had licenses 30 years ago.

Consequently, driving schools have had to overcome their image of being kowai (scary, meaning teachers), dasai (unsophisticated) and kurai (dark). According to a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun, the cost of obtaining a license is, on the average, about 20 to 30 percent less than it used to be. This isn’t to say that schools have necessarily cut their fees, only that they make it somewhat easier to reach the goal of actually passing the test. One of the unspoken truisms about driving schools is that, since they basically administer the written and road tests themselves, they can theoretically control how long it takes for a student to get their license, and the longer it takes, the more money they can make charging for practice hours. Nowadays, many schools actually stress that you can get your license sooner with them than you can at other schools.

But there are other perks. Some schools offer special intensive programs wherein the student lives at the school and gets his or her license in an even shorter period. These sort of gasshuku programs have always been offered, but now they have a kind of resort appeal. The accommodations are like hotels and the food is deluxe. The appeal seems to be mainly pitched at women. In fact, one very successful school in Niigata caters only to women, with its own specially appointed business hotel, a beauty parlor and nail salon, and day-excursions to local hot springs.

The Koyama Driving School, which, with four branches, is Tokyo’s biggest, gives lessons in English to non-Japanese students, an important market since some years ago the National Police Agency made it more difficult for people who obtained licences overseas to trade them in for Japanese licenses. Koyama “graduates” 400 foreign drivers a year, and its Futago Tamagawa branch even has a licensed day-care center for people with kids. Moreover, one-third of its instructors can communicate in sign language.

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